PRAGUE -- At the height of the cold war, hundreds of cartoons shown in the United States were actually made in Communist Czechoslovakia. Throughout the 1960's, episodes of "Tom and Jerry," "Popeye" and "Krazy Kat," as well as animated versions of classic children's books like "Madeline" and "In the Night Kitchen," came into American theaters, homes, schools and libraries straight from the animation studios of Prague.
The stories were written by Americans and directed by an American, but Czech studios did the art, composed the music and made the soundeffects. What if the Communists had been putting subliminal messages between the animation cels? What if spinach was actually code for I.C.B.M.'s and the Wild Things were really a secret call to revolution? How is it possible that during the paranoia of the cold war and the Cuban missile crisis, these children's cartoons were produced behind the Iron Curtain?
The two men responsible for this odd state of affairs were William L. Snyder, a producer who saw how cheaply and well he could get the work done in Czechoslovakia, and Gene Deitch, the New York director Mr. Snyder hustled into overseeing the work. Mr. Deitch, 74, has now lived and worked in Prague for close to 40 years as an independent director. He has always been free to come and go as he pleased. Sitting comfortably in his small apartment in the center of old Prague's Lesser Quarter, with a new view of McDonald's, he said recently of his Communist hosts, "They never messed with me at all."
But in October 1959, Gene Deitch sat nervously in a Soviet copy of a DC-3, on his way to Prague. He wondered, as he writes in his 1997 memoir, "For the Love of Prague," "Am I being set up?" and, more pointedly, "What in the hell was I doing there?"
In the 1950's, Mr. Deitch was creative director of the New York branch of UPA, , the innovative animation studio best known for "Mr. Magoo," and later of CBS Terrytoons. He worked on the first "Mr. Magoo," animated the first NBC color peacock and created "Tom Terrific," the very first network television cartoon series, which ran on "Captain Kangaroo" for the next 25 years.
He founded his own production company, Gene Deitch Associates, but did not enjoy the responsibility and could not find financing for the projects he really cared about, like the young Jules Feiffer's antiwar story "Munro." Enter Mr. Snyder with a contraband Cuban cigar and a proposition. He would finance Mr. Deitch's pet projects, including "Munro," if Mr. Deitch would spruce up some films Mr. Snyder had in production. In Prague.
Mr. Snyder, who was among the first Americans to do business in postwar Eastern Europe, had founded Rembrandt Films in 1949 to import European works like "The Red Balloon" to the United States. He especially liked puppet animation films, and was told the best ones came from Prague, but that it would be impossible to go there. He was a smooth talker; it turned out that all he needed to do was offer Western cash and all doors were opened. Rembrandt's first critical success was with "The Emperor's Nightingale," a puppet animation film based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen and directed by the Czech master Jiri Trnka, to which Mr. Snyder added a new English narration by Boris Karloff.
By the late '50s, he decided to produce his own films, animating children's books that would run more toward American tastes. He got the Czechs to agree to set up a special "Snyder unit" within the state-run Bratri v Triku animation studios to fill his commissions, and he asked that Zdenka Najmanova, the only person there who spoke any English, be put in charge.
The Snyder unit, set up in three floors of the defunct Prague stock exchange, began by adapting a handful of children's books, including the "Madeline" series by Ludwig Bemelmans, "Many Moons" by James Thurber and "Anatole," the story by Eve Titus of a French mouse who finds work as a connoisseur of cheese. The art was beautiful, but Mr. Snyder felt the darker, slower-paced Czech style was too somber for an American audience. "Our work was melancholic," Zdenka Deitchova -- the former Ms. Najmanova -- said recently. But now Mr. Snyder figured he needed an American director to give the pictures sizzle and pop, and he found Mr. Deitch.
"Our studio was homey, a family, and we didn't want an intruder, an American, telling us what to do," Ms. Deitchova recalled.
At first she refused to speak to the intruder; soon she fell in love with him and he with her. Mr. Deitch, only weeks before terrified even to visit Prague, left his marriage and three young sons to start a new life here.
He immediately took advantage of Mr. Snyder's promise to finance "Munro," Jules Feiffer's story of a 4-year-old boy who is mistakenly drafted into the Army. Mr. Feiffer said that the film's antiwar message had kept him from finding anyone who would finance it s production during the blacklist days of the 50's .
"I suppose I was dimly aware it was made in Czechoslovakia, but I had no active participation in the making of 'Munro,'" Mr. Feiffer said, sounding almost as if the blacklist were still in effect. In 1960, "Munro" opened at Radio City Music Hall on a bill with "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and won the Oscar that year for best animated short subject.
All told, from 1961-1968, his unit went on to make almost 200 animated films for MGM, Paramount Pictures and King Features, including 13 episodes of "Tom and Jerry," 26 episodes of "Popeye," and 52 episodes of "Krazy Kat." "All the experts say they're the worst of the 'Tom and Jerry's," Mr. Deitch readily admitted. "I was a UPA man -- my whole background was much closer to the Czechs. 'Tom and Jerry' I always considered dreck, but they had great timing, facial expressions, double takes, squash and stretch" -- all techniques the Czechs had to learn. The Czech style had nothing in common with these gag-driven cartoons.
Besides doing two-dimensional animation in every possible style of illustration, they animated fragile blown-glass figures, toys and bits of felt. They often worked with dark themes like the uncontrolled development of technology, or explored people's relationship to a natural world populated with creatures from folklore and fairy tales.
Bratri v Triku had been founded after World War II by people who had studied bootleg copies of Disney films during the Nazi occupation. Jiri Trnka and Eduard Hofman's team figured out how to achieve the effects, working backward from the finished product.
What made them so good?
"These people come out of a puppet tradition," Mr. Deitch said. "We think of these characters as real and alive, but the Czechs see them as dolls." So, for instance, the characters' lips didn't need to move. "Americans would never accept that, but the Czechs want to leave something to the imagination."
Mr. Deitch said the Czech authorities never interfered in his work. Even in the other units, where animators made films for the Czech market, the censorship was mostly self- censorship -- why make something that would just end up in the trash? They were, however, no t to make cartoons with bears in them; the risk of offending the Soviets was too great.
No one had to smuggle the reels out of Prague or into the United States; it was just business, hard currency for low-cost, high-quality labor. The Iron Curtain was always more porous than it seemed. The Czechs exported their famous Pilsner Urquell beer, Semtex plastic explosive and many styles of hats, including most of the fezzes in Turkey.
However, "Snyder was careful to mask the fact that the films were made behind the Iron Curtain," Mr. Deitch said. So careful that he Americanized the spellings of the Czech names in the credits of every film they made.
Adam Snyder, William's son and the current president of Rembrandt Films, sees it differently.
"I don't think my dad Americanized credit spelling because he was scared so much," he said. "It was more that he thought it was better not to promote the idea that the cartoons weren't American. They were made for the U.S. audience, after all, by an American director."
Mr. Snyder, who died in June at the age of 80, ran into financial troubles in the late 1960's, and Rembrandt Films stopped producing in Prague. When Mr. Deitch's exclusive contract with Rembrandt expired in 1968, he started animating children's books for Weston Woods Studios ,an American company based in Weston, Conn., that is now one of the world's largest producers of audiovisual materials for school systems. It was recently bought by Scholastic.
The blacklists may have been long over by 1968, but anti-Communist rhetoric was still strong in the United States. "That was never a concern of mine," said Morton Schindel, the head of Weston Woods Studios, from his home in Connecticut. "We were very apolitical ." Originally, Weston Woods sold films to libraries, but when schools started building audiovisual collections with new Federal funding during the Johnson administration, that became its largest market.
There was good faith all around. "In 25 years, we never changed the original contract; we just trusted one another," Mr. Schindel said ofhis dealings with Bratri v Triku and Mr. Deitch. "It was a perfectly delightful relationship all the way through." T HOUGH nominally retired since 1995, Mr. Deitch continues to work on projects like putting out a new edition of "For the Love of Prague," his spicy, funny memoir.
(The book is not available in the United States; information on ordering it can be obtained by sending an E-mail message to email@example.com.)
In general, both Mr. Deitch and Ms. Deitchova dislike American television, but "The Simpsons" meets Ms. Deitchova's approval: "I feel it's really something great, the exception on American TV." It was "The Simpsons," after all, on which Krusty the Clown once pre-empted "The Itchy and Scratchy Show" -- itself a "Tom and Jerry" parody -- to broadcast the most popular cat-and-mouse team from the former Eastern bloc, "Worker and Parasite." As Bart and Lisa watched, two abstract figures danced in jerking motions to dissonant music against a whirling Kandinsky-like background. Cut back to Krusty, who growled, "What the hell was that?"
Mr. Deitch and Ms. Deitchova have also heard about 'South Park." But coming from a tradition in which the most talented artists and musicians were enlisted to make animated films, they were less than eager to catch up with it. "If you are doing something for children," she said, "it must be the best."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times August 9, 1998 by JEN NESSEL
"The year was 1958. But Deitch's is not a spy story, not some intriguing Cold War fable, sneaking through the shadows of a castled city. It is the tale of how a life changed, of how a man who thought he had a place in the world actually had to travel halfway around the world to figure out where he really belonged
. he took a risk that turned out well. For a guy who conjured miles and miles of cartoon make-believe, Deitch did OK in the real world. He found love, a home, and he's got a book full of stories."
"It's all in his 312-page autobiography: For the Love of Prague. In 1959, at the urging of (film producer)William L. Snyder, a polished huckster, charmer, and raconteur, Deitch traveled to Czechoslovakia on a 10-day contract," (and is still there nearly 40 years later!)
"I didn't know any dissidents," he said. "I don't pretend I was an insider. There are no big state secrets revealed in my book. I only had a fly's-eye view of what life was like on the street. I just met a lot of fascinating people who no one ever heard of."
(From the Sunday, January 4, 1998 ditioin of The Philadelphis Inquirer")
"The guy is so young that it's hard to think of him as 'The Oldest American in Prague.' But Gene Deitch writes with a passion of a young man in love - with life in Prague, with the woman who risked everything for him, and like her husband, won the game of life despite communism, a Soviet invasion, and the everyday hassles and shortages of living behind the iron curtain. But this book is more than an eye-witness account. For The Love of Prague is a great love story!"
-Alan Levy, editor-in-chief, The Prague Post